We recently learned of the ninth suicide among the ranks of the New York Police Department this year. That’s a tragic loss, and an unacceptably high number; but it reflects the stress and tension of the job that police officers do every day. As City Journal points out:
In 2013, researchers published a study in the International Journal of Stress Management, examining the relationship between “critical incidents” and the mental health of police officers. It found that such episodes are associated both with alcohol use and PTSD symptoms. “Critical incidents” include a range of experiences that police officers—among other first responders—might encounter, including “badly beaten child,” “decaying corpse,” “making a death notification,” and personal harm or injury.
According to a study published by The Ruderman Family Foundation, “one survey of 193 police officers from small and midsize police departments” found that the “average number of events witnessed by officers was 188” throughout their careers. Another study found that approximately 80 percent of police-officer participants “reported seeing dead bodies and severely assaulted victims in the past year,” while 63 percent had seen abused children. More than 64 percent reported seeing victims of a serious traffic accident. Almost 40 percent had seen someone die in front of them in the previous year.
Do the public and media appreciate the reality of police work? Police don’t seem to think so: according to a 2016 Pew survey of American cops, only 13 percent believe “that the public understands the risks and challenges that law enforcement officers face on the job.” More than 75 percent of officers believe that the media treats police unfairly. Instances of police misconduct exist, of course, and they justifiably lead to public scrutiny and condemnation; but we should resist the tendency to allow those events to shape how we view police more broadly.
There’s more at the link.
I’ve been exposed to that stress while serving as a prison chaplain. The stress on staff behind bars is, in many ways, even worse than that experienced by police officers on the streets, because prison staff can’t just walk away from it, or go and have a beer to unwind. They’re stuck in the middle of it for hours on end – and they may be dangerous hours, too. In my memoir of prison chaplaincy, I wrote:
Working in such an environment has an inevitable effect on the staff — not just the Correctional Officers, but all of us. It’s very hard to maintain a cool, professional approach when you know that many of the inmates are out to get you in any way they can. After a while, the constant lies, evasions, attempts at manipulation, lack of co-operation, and just plain nastiness start to wear you down. Stress levels among prison staff are understandably very high, with inevitable negative consequences for their domestic life. The incidence of divorce and suicide amongst all peace officers is considerably above average, and corrections staff aren’t exempt. It’s very hard to leave your work behind at the gates of the prison…
This is very troubling from three perspectives. The first is that of inmates who genuinely want to change, to reform, and seek help in doing so. Their approach will be automatically regarded with suspicion by prison staff. We’ve all been ‘conned’ so many times that it’s all too easy to regard any such approach as more of the same. The inmates, hurt and frustrated, then blame the staff for being unfeeling and inhuman. In a sense, of course, they’re right — but they refuse to acknowledge the inevitability of such a reaction, given the staff’s constant exposure to less-well-motivated inmates. As a result, some convicts who really are sincere, and should receive extra help, aren’t given what they need. Some of them will turn away, frustrated and angry, and decide that if the system is going to treat them like dirt then they’re going to behave that way, just like everybody else behind bars. Others will sink into apathy and disillusionment, perhaps giving up hope of any meaningful life behind bars. Some of them may turn to drugs: others may become suicidal.
The second perspective is that of the staff themselves. They can very easily become hardened to anything any inmate says, and discount even reasonable excuses or explanations. I’ve known cases where a minor infraction by an inmate new to the system (probably committed through ignorance of regulations), has resulted in extremely heavy punishment, most likely because the officer or manager concerned was tired and frustrated from dealing with far too many similar cases, and wasn’t in the mood to make allowances or cut a new inmate some slack. It’s all too easy to say to oneself, “If they’re going to treat me like dirt, then I’m going to dish out dirt to them. Let’s see how they like it!” When I trained at FLETC, an instructor commented to me in private conversation, “During his first year in the BOP, a new officer can’t do enough for the inmate. During his second year, he can’t do enough to the inmate. The third and subsequent years, he just doesn’t give a damn any more.” Sadly, I’ve seen this cynical observation borne out in practice many times — although there are honorable exceptions, thank heaven.
The third perspective is that of the families of prison staff. It’s hard to maintain a normal home environment when one’s spouse is bringing home so much stress and tension. Children feel it too. A disproportionately large percentage of ‘corrections marriages’ fail, and the effects on spouse and children are long-lasting. Second and subsequent marriages often go the same way. It’s extremely difficult for those who haven’t personally experienced the stress of the corrections environment to understand its effect on those who live in it every day. It’s even harder for those who come home from it to share it with their spouses, who consequently feel ‘shut out’ of their partner’s work life. After all, what can a Correctional Officer tell his wife about the reality of his job? If he says, “Honey, today I charged down a man with a knife, while armed only with my bare hands,” her instant (and understandable) reaction will probably be to scream at him for being a fool by exposing himself to such danger. She might understand intellectually that he did something heroic and praiseworthy, but all she can see in her mind’s eye is herself and her children at his funeral.
The prison environment has another unfortunate effect on staff and their families. The staff member is surrounded, all day, every day, by those he cannot and dare not trust. Every time they approach him, he has to wonder about their ulterior motives and hidden purposes, suspecting a trap or an attempt to deceive. When he gets home, it’s sometimes very hard not to let this perspective affect his attitudes towards his loved ones. What might be normal behavior in a child (lies, evasions, excuses, etc.) may attract a much stronger reaction than normal parental disapproval and correction, because he’s too used to exercising discipline (sometimes very physically) over real evildoers who do the same things. This leads to a great deal of stress and tension in families.
Stress like that takes its toll. Street cops have it just as bad, with the sole exception that they can walk away from it, sometimes, in some circumstances. That doesn’t always help, of course, because they know that’ll just mean another officer has to take the stress in their place.
Stress took the ultimate toll on Officer Robert Echeverría, NYPD, last week. He leaves behind a wife and two children, 11 and 18 years old. May Officer Echeverría find peace and forgiveness, and may his family receive what comfort they may in so terrible a situation.
For the rest of us . . . may we have a deeper appreciation for the burdens our law enforcement officers and agencies carry for the rest of us. We may complain about law enforcement overreach from time to time (I certainly do), but we’d complain a lot harder if they weren’t around at all.